Keith Russell’s Newest Addiction Research Published in ‘Psychotherapy’

by John Thompson
Office of Communications and Marketing
  • An instructor and clients in ENVIROS' Shunda Creek program make their way make their way out of the North Saskatchewan River drainage outside of Banff.
    An instructor and clients in ENVIROS' Shunda Creek program make their way make their way out of the North Saskatchewan River drainage outside of Banff.

Western Washington University Professor of Health and Human Development Keith Russell has had his research on adventure-based addiction-treatment programs published in “Psychotherapy,” the flagship publication of the American Psychological Association.

Russell, who along with colleagues Dennis Kivligham and Lee Gillis, is the author of a study charting outcomes and methodology of a wilderness treatment program run by ENVIROS, a private nonprofit in Edmonton, Alberta.

“Edmonton, much like Seattle and Vancouver, is absolutely awash in cheap heroin right now,” said Russell. “We’ve got these kids making tons of money driving trucks in the Tar Sands and coming into town, and heroin is everywhere. And the addiction and overdose numbers are just staggering.”

In 2009, as the heroin epidemic in Canada began to spiral out of control, Russell, an expert in wilderness treatment and the co-author of “Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research and Practice” (Routledge, 2012), began working with ENVIROS to not only implement a new treatment method and model based on wilderness therapy, but also to put in place, from day 1, an evaluation component that can track the program’s efficacy.

“They wanted to try something new, and they wanted to do it right, so I was very intrigued and very interested to work with them,” he said.

ENVIROS’ Shunda Creek program takes young male addicts ages 18-24 to a remote camp near Banff for a 90-day treatment cycle. The patients work with therapists and outdoor leaders, go on 5-day backcountry trips into the Canadian Rockies, work together in group therapy sessions and in sweat-lodge sessions led by First Nations elders, go on river runs and do peer-counseling work.

“The treatment approach integrates two powerful mediums, one is time spent in nature and the other is mindfulness practice,” Russell said. “What our research is showing is that is that the integration of nature-based adventures like climbing and backpacking with daily meditation and reflection can literally re-wire your brain around the roadblocks built by addiction.”

Russell’s research published in Psychotherapy was a breakdown of the results and methodology of the program thus far, and the data shows that the team from ENVIROS is making a difference.

“It’s a long program, and about 75 percent of these guys are finishing all 90 days, which is a really high number,” he said. The relapse numbers for the program are also low compared to many more traditional treatment programs, in part because Canada provides far better support to addicts in recovery than the U.S. does, Russell said.

“We have a very big problem in this country about how we treat mental health and addiction issues,” he said. “Right now, ‘treatment’ in the U.S. usually either means expensive private programs if you have the financial ability to do so or incarceration if you don’t. And figures show that between 65 and 85 percent of those incarcerated with addiction issues will be incarcerated again.”

“One of the reasons I was drawn to work with ENVIROS is because Canada is less interested in criminalizing those with these issues and more interested in treating them. Even with the boom times for the Tar Sands being long gone, the province still supports ENVIROS financially because of its track record,” he said.

“Addiction doesn’t care if the economy has gone south.”

Russell received his doctorate from the University of Idaho in 1999 and has taught at Western since 2008. For more information on his research into wilderness-based addiction therapy, contact him at (360) 650-3529 or keith.russell@wwu.edu.

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